Michelle Ilana Singer Soffen
American. Israeli. Jew. Zionist. Progressive - Radically Moderate. Proud.

A poem on racism, identity, Jewishness, Zionism and complexity

I am many things


I am a Jew

I am Israeli

I am American

I am Ashkenazi

I am not European

I am Middle Eastern

I am not White

I am a light-skinned Levantine Semite

I am White-Passing

I am White in the eyes of most Systems

I am hated for not being white enough

I am hated for being too white

I am a beneficiary of White Privilege

I am hurt by White Supremacy

I am helped by White Supremacy

I am not the cause of White Supremacy

I am passively perpetuating White Supremacy

I am RESPONSIBLE for doing my small part to dismantle White Supremacy

I am often asked by white people “what ARE you?”, because my big nose, my big hair shouts “something different!”

I am scared when this happens

I am proud when this happens

I am never told “you don’t look Jewish” when this happens

I am a Jew whose Jewishness is never doubted, never challenged because of the color of my skin. I am never asked to show my papers, to prove I belong, unlike my Black and of Color Jewish brothers and sisters

I am part of the Jews who were exiled to Europe; who blossomed in poisoned soil, but whose roots never took

I am part of the Jews who were told to “go home”; who never stopped praying for the day we could

I am part of the Jews who thought we were passing until they finally came up with a solution to weed us out

I am part of the Jews who escaped to Ellis Island, who successfully blended, who enjoyed upward mobility, comfort, stability

I am a descendant of 2000 years of suffering, persecution, and inherited trauma; of 4000 years of uplifting wisdom, tradition, ingroup empowerment, community and success despite all odds – passed down from generation to generation

I am a descendent of great-grandparents who fled pogroms, who were beaten and killed for being Jewish; of grandparents who were mocked and taunted and excluded from clubs and workplaces; of parents who had no inherited wealth and fought and saved and suffered to become respected physicians

I am the Jewish generation born not ever knowing a time without Israel – able to walk tall without fear because of this psychological security blanket

I am the Jewish generation that is still attacked; by knives, by spit, by rockets, by libel; once again turned into the symbol of all that is evil

I am the generation that knows Jewish Power for the first time since we were carried away from our home in chains – for the first time truly free in our own land, able to participate actively in the redemption

I am the generation stumbling, trying to learn to enjoy that power responsibly, often succeeding, often erring

I am a cis-gendered woman; benefiting from and disadvantaged by conditionally white womanhood

I am able to get pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike and worry about the impact on my wallet, not my life; to smile and wink and be on my merry way

I am scared to ride the subway alone at night in NYC because I have been shoved and harassed for being a woman, for being a Jew

I am able to approach an Israeli Police officer in the Old City of Jerusalem and ask for directions knowing worst-case scenario I’ll be ignored

I am forbidden from entering some countries, I am in danger in many more countries, simply for being a visible Jew

I am NEVER IN FEAR, in either of MY countries, that the AUTHORITIES are not on my side due to the amount of melanin in my skin

I am propelled ahead as a result

I am selected for success, as a result – chosen by systems designed for me and not others

I am handed on a silver platter all that I need to succeed by a deeply supportive and stable family, and their network of successful people

I am held back by mental health issues – woven so deeply into my being, preserved by, hard-coded into my nucleic acids – from which I can never fully break free

I am able to afford tools to cope that others can not

I am still struggling to succeed because I am afraid of failure and

I am flawed 

I am standing at the edge of a diving board, peeking below at the safety net of deep soft waters; soothing me, beckoning, whispering “we’ll catch you”; and yet,

I am paralyzed stiff while others have NO CHOICE but to jump into the shallows, no forgiving waters to break the fall if they slip

I am afforded the luxury of failure and paralysis

I am PRIVILEGED

I am a lover of tradition

I am a fighter for reform

I am a pursuer of Justice

I am a pursuer of Peace

I am in need of protection from police

I am in debt to those who protect me

I am in AWE of those who risk and give their lives to protect me

I am in recognition of the fact that this protection disadvantages and harms others, both in the US and here in Israel

I am aware of the need to change this inequity

I am terrified of the physical dangers that could befall my people, both here and in the US, as a result of this change

I am ready to talk about ways to reconcile those competing needs, to think creatively about solutions to meet both

I am striving to become anti-racist

I am striving to fight anti-Semitism

I am striving to become an effective ally in the fight to make Black Lives Matter

I am striving to acknowledge my buried biases and own my shame; to notice my many embarrassing, past and continued, subconscious microaggressions against Arabs, against Blacks, against Jews who don’t look like me

I am striving to smile and emit warmth instead of crossing the street in fear when I pass a Palestinian in Tel Aviv; I am mortified that I have to even think to do so; I am aware she may be just as afraid of me

I am striving to seek justice for my Palestinian neighbors

I am striving to uphold justice for my People

I am failing

I am learning and growing through failure

I am taking lessons and inspiration from conversations about systemic racism in America and recognizing an opportunity to learn from and apply them here

I am going to continue pointing out fundamental differences between our circumstances

I am pro constructive criticism

I am against destructive demonization

I am not a western colonizer

I am a tragically imperfect self-emancipator; part of a decolonization movement that both advanced and regressed because of western colonizers

I am an immigrant by choice, not by necessity

I am an immigrant foreigner, yet home amongst family

I am the fulfillment of the 2000-year-old righteous dream to return home and join those who never left

I am tacitly complicit in oppression

I am just a girl trying not to burn toast

I am an occupier of people

I am a liberator of land

I am indigenous to this land. I belong to this land

I am taking up the space of others who belong to this land

I am comfortable saying my People have a RIGHT, maybe even an obligation, to settle and self-determine in all of our indigenous lands including Judea and Samaria

I am prepared to NOT ACTUALIZE certain rights or obligations in order to uphold other divine values and commandments – to guarantee essential rights for others

I am keen on finding a more creative solution

I am a Jew who learns from Torah an obligation to love and protect my own; who says “never again” for my People

I am a Jew who learns from Torah an obligation to extend that love and protection to others; who says “never again” for other Peoples

I am a Jew who knows sometimes these sentiments are in direct opposition

I am a Jew who knows these distinctions between us and others, between the “I” and the “oneness”, are only necessary illusions – a part of this temporary, physical realm

I am a Jew who wants to use these distinctions productively – because effective external care emerges when we first care for ourselves

I am a Jew who believes in the dignity of difference

I am able to listen to and learn from others who hold very different beliefs

I am understanding of the momentum achieved by drawing lines in the sand

I am aware that change through divide is easier and faster and sometimes necessary

I am hesitant to draw lines in most situations, because

I am a believer that change through unity is harder and slower, but ultimately more enduring

I am a seeker of data

I am a validator of feelings and narratives

I am a messenger imploring us to remember that feelings and narratives shape reality, influencing and selecting your facts and mine

I am begging us to acknowledge our cognitive biases that we may actually disagree l’shem shamayim, and in the process reveal deeper, hidden truths together

I am refusing to misattribute our irreconcilable differences to something fundamentally, irreparably broken in you

I am choosing to assume you are motivated by something fundamentally decent and worthy

I am willing to listen to you, I want to learn from you

I am hopeful you will listen to and learn from me

I am meant to listen to and learn from those who know better

I am designed to think critically and add my unique voice

I am guilty of centering* 

I am centering in that it might help others break through paralysis towards action

I am gevurah

I am chesed

I am a particularist

I am a universalist

I am a pluralist

I am a progressive

I am a feminist

I am a Zionist

I am a humanist

I am human

I am everything and the world was made for me

I am but dust and ashes

 

I am hearing from the world that I can’t be all of these things at once

I am rejecting that fallacy

I am only not all of these things if I want to have it easy

I am here to struggle and through that struggle find truth

 

***************

This piece of writing is a poem; it therefore now belongs to you, the reader, and you may interpret it however you choose. That said, I’d like to explain my intentions behind this piece which is both a window into my personal, internal embrace of privilege, victimhood, and multiple individual and collective identities; as well as an external plea for empathic, nuanced discourse and activism.

Danish physicist Niels Bohr explained that “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Jews have a long-standing tradition of learning and revealing light through paradoxical logic; of holding space simultaneously for two seemingly opposite profound truths and uncovering nuance within the tension. At first glance, many of the above statements might seem to be irreconcilable contradictions. The point I hope to make is that they are not.

For instance, it is very easy right now as a light-skinned Jew to say “we are complicit in oppression and white supremacy, we are not victims,” and therefore feel no need to combat the virulent anti-Semitism that continues to threaten us both on the far right and left of the political spectrum. It is just as easy to say “we are victims, we can’t be complicit in oppression and white supremacy”, and therefore feel no need to reckon internally with the ways our Jewish communities tolerate and even perpetuate racist systems; as well as the way we as individuals and institutions discriminate against our own Black Jews and Jews of visible color. It is important to acknowledge and show up as both fellow victims of white supremacy and as a group that has largely blended in with and perpetuated a racist system.

For those of us light-skinned Jews who identify as “not white”, it is easy to believe we are not part of the problem. It is also easy to identify as “white” and erase our thousands of years of experience and continued persecution as non-whites. It is important to find appropriate terminology – be it “white-passing”, “light-skinned Semites”, “conditionally white”, or “functionally white” – so that we can both acknowledge our privileges and problematic participation in racist systems without erasing Jewish Peoplehood or our past and ongoing persecution. Though I recognize every Jew’s right to choose how she identifies, I encourage us light-skinned Jews to consider decolonizing our identity; to acknowledge our privilege while rejecting the need to fit in with and become ‘white’.

It is easy to conflate supporting the Black Lives Matter cause with supporting BDS. It is natural to feel unsympathetic to the cause due to anti-Semitic rhetoric and platforms that have emerged from sectors of the movement. It takes time and patience to work through our anger at this outcome and recognize that we are in part responsible because we did not get involved earlier – we ran away when we felt alienated.  It also takes some research to understand that the Black Lives Matter movement is not monolithic;  the part is not the whole and there are plenty of ways to support the cause without supporting the specific problematic organizations (see below). Ask yourself – if Kahanists became more prominent and influenced the Knesset, would the greater Zionist cause become illegitimate? Or would we beg the world to not lump us all together – to separate the overall cause for Jewish self-determination from the problematic factions within that struggle? And if you are struggling as a Jew to see beyond certain methodologies for achieving justice (i.e. riots) – ask yourself two questions: 1) Do you recognize the legitimacy of violent tactics used against British officers to liberate Israel? 2) If the answer is no, ask yourself – do the actions of these groups undermine the central message of Zionism?

These important distinctions must also be made when we have conversations about systemic discrimination in Israel. It is easy to be bothered by Israel’s problematic treatment of our minority citizens and of our Palestinian neighbors and falsely conflate our transgressions with colonialism; to make hideous, libelous accusations that “Zionism is Racism”; to hold Israel to a double standard and demonize us as the symbol of all that is evil. It is also easy to believe our situation here is so uniquely difficult that we are incapable of any wrongdoing and consequently feel no need to internally push for reform. It takes a bit more mental energy to be proud of our country, to recognize our right to be here and defend ourselves, and to still say “we can do better.”

I encourage us as a Zionist Jewish community, especially during such divisive times, to hold all of our truths together; to simultaneously own our varying degrees of privilege and complicity in oppression, alongside our victimhood and the essential ongoing need to combat anti-semitism and protect our own. I likewise implore us to find the strength and compassion to listen to and learn from one another; to embrace our beautiful tradition of disagreement for the sake of heaven.

I hope this poem inspires you, whoever you are, to embrace the complexities in yourself, those around you, and the problems facing our societies. May we all wrestle with these seemingly contradictory profound truths and resist the temptation to discard parts of our identity, history, and narrative. I also hope that if you are a Zionist Jew, this post inspires you to take action to combat systemic racism in the United States and in Israel. We do this by listening to those who have been working on these issues for a long time (see list below), by self-educating about systemic racism, and by committing to changing our institutions and demanding equity. It is time for us to loudly declare – with our words, with our feet, with our dollars, with our institutions, and with our time – that Black Lives Matter.

Here is a list of resources for us to start taking these steps:

SELF EDUCATE

-Read: “Zionesses for Racial Justice: An Activist’s Guide
-Read and Sign and COMMIT (as an individual or organization): Not free to desist: An open letter from Black Jews, Non-Black Jews of Color, and our allies to Jewish Federations, Foundations, Organizations, and Initiatives
– Read: ‘As a Jew of Color, I Need More People in My Community to Speak Up’
-Read: How Can I support BLM as a Jew? by Amy Albertson
-Read: You don’t have to choose between Black Lives Matter and Israel, by Carly Pildis
-Read: A roundup of academic studies that highlight Racism in the Criminal Justice System
-Read: When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs, by Tre Johnson
-Watch: Systemic Racism Explained
-Watch: “How can we win?” Kimberly Jones explains Systemic Racism and Black indignation
-Watch: Deconstructing White Privilege with Dr. Robin DiAngelo
-Watch: John Oliver explains racism, police brutality, and “defund the police”
-Join: A three night educational webinar about the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities
-Check yourself: Racism Scale – Where do you fall?
-Check yourself: Becoming Anti-Racist infographic
-Sign your organization up for a DEI training: message Jews in all Hues

ORGANIZATIONS TO SUPPORT
Vetted list of organizations NOT affiliated with BDS

NY Mag list of organizations organized by category*
* This list is not vetted, but it is well made, thorough and worth sharing

BLACK-OWNED BUSINESSES TO SUPPORT
A list of Black-Owned business to support in Israel compiled by Amy Albertson

VOICES TO FOLLOW, LISTEN TO AND LEARN FROM
@lindseynewmz
@RachelSumekh
@poetryaaron
@isaacoforisolomon
@joyous.justice
@therealmanishtana
Simone Weichselbaum
Chloé Simone Valdary
Rudy Rochman
@hey.alma
@globaljews
MC Slater

*It is important to acknowledge that this very “I” centric piece is taking up space in a conversation that should be primarily focused on learning about systemic racism. This moment should not be about “me/us” as Jews. I made the conscious decision to share this piece publicly, fully aware that I am guilty of ‘centering’. My aim is not to make the larger conversation about “me/us”,  but to try and help other light-skinned Zionist Jews who benefit from white privilege to process and overcome some of the psychological barriers to action that many of us are experiencing at this important moment in history. This is a critical first step that our community must go through in order to meaningfully join the larger conversation about systemic racism and become effective allies. 

About the Author
Filmmaker, Mediator, Tel Aviv University MA student of Public Policy; bridging Storytelling and Conflict Resolution. Michelle received her first degree from Northwestern University in Communication and Middle Eastern Studies. She worked as an independent film producer in NYC and ran an accelerator program for filmmakers before serving as Director of Communications for Manhattan Jewish Experience. She is currently pursuing a career in Conflict Resolution and Mediation and is particularly interested in using the dramatic arts to overcome psychological barriers to reconciliation.
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